Standing up to the test of time is just as crucial an element in making a work of literature a classic as is the excellence of the writing, and how much it touches people around the world. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a good example of a novel that meets these requirements and deserves to be called a true classic of literature. I would have liked to have seen this novel done up in an edition that befits a fiftieth-anniversary edition of literature, perhaps a re-release in hardback with additional information, maps, and maybe a special introduction from the author or a friend of his; but the superb quality of the writing alone makes Things Fall Apart worthy of being rated five stars.
Achebe’s book, the story of the African-born Okonkwo, is divided into three distinct sections. Okonkwo climbs through his toil and efforts to gain titles and recognition from his village of Umuofia, then tragically falls in the first section. In the second and third sections, he attempts to make a new life for himself and his family during a seven-year exile in his mother’s homeland and to eventually return to Umuofia more successful than ever. But he and his people, in the last two sections, also have to deal with a clash of cultures and the destruction of Okonkwo’s world brought about by the arrival of white European missionaries.
Okonkwo is a man driven by ambition and the fear of failure, determined in the first section (sometimes considered a separate story from the last two sections) to be as much unlike his father as he can, to become a “strong man” of his tribe. He considers his father to have been lazy and soft, and that was why he was unsuccessful in life. Okonkwo tries to present a hard, rough exterior to everyone around him, and to work tirelessly to succeed and gain the respect and acclaim of his tribe. Sadly, by doing these things, he devalues some of the good qualities that helped to offset those qualities he despises in his father. His father’s love of music is one example, and how he treats those around him with kindness. Conflicted, Okonkwo still feels love for his family, though he beats his wives and children if they displease him. As Achebe writes:
Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life
was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness....It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.
An unfortunate accident puts an end to all of Okonkwo’s efforts. At a funeral for a great man in Umuofia, his gun accidently goes off, killing a sixteen-year-old boy. Though Okonkwo didn’t kill the boy on purpose, still he is forced to accept his tribe’s punishment of seven years exile. Fortunately, an uncle in his mother’s homeland welcomes him and his family with open arms and gives Okonkwo enough seed yams to get off to a prosperous start.
That’s when things really begin to “fall apart” for Okonkwo and his way of life. The arrival of the white missionaries with their worship of a single God is looked at as rash foolishness by Okonkwo. When his uncle’s tribe decides to give the Europeans a small part of the spirit-filled Evil Forest, they believe that in a very short amount of time the white men will be killed by their gods for their foolishness. Instead, the missionaries thrive, making several converts as a result of having seemingly thwarting the native gods, thereby demonstrating the greater power of their God.
Things Fall Apart is one of Africa’s best-loved novels and has become a favorite of people around the world. The story of Okonkwo’s struggle to achieve success and his fall from grace, and the culture clash brought about by the arrival of the white missionaries, is written with a powerful poetic beauty. If you’ve never read this book before, you owe it to yourself to do so. If you’ve read it before, here’s a new chance for you to re-read it and enjoy this classic work of literature all over again.